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King Carl

I was impressed with 24 Hour CEO Carl Leibert during Friday's panel session at the Club Industry show. This was my first time seeing him in person, and apparently, it was the first time other attendees at the show saw him up close and personal, too. A good number of attendees flocked to him immediately after the session, and others were thrilled to see him on the trade show floor, almost like they were meeting a rock star. (He's a tall guy, so you can't miss him.)

Leibert spoke my language, especially when he made a lot of football references during the session, titled "Fitness Business at a Crossroad: How to Hold on in Today's Economy and Prosper in the Future." At one point, Leibert said of 24 Hour, "We're no longer doing Hail Marys. We're going back to a wishbone offense."

Leibert, who was an executive at The Home Depot before arriving at 24 Hour, has learned a lot since coming to the industry.

"It's probably the most fun industry I've been around," he said. "Our industry has the ability to change people's lives."

Later, he added the irony of the essence of the industry.

"We're the only industry where you sign up and you don't get instant gratification," he said. "You sign up (at a club) and then you have to work. It's a funny industry."

Leibert is eager to learn more about the industry and find out what works. A couple of weeks ago, he traveled ("By planes, trains and automobiles," he said) from his headquarters in San Ramon, CA, to Gainesville, FL, to visit with Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers owner Joe Cirulli. Leibert wanted to know what make Cirulli and his clubs tick.

"Of operators out there, Joe is right there on top," Leibert said.

The target audience of the club industry is a little different than what Leibert was used to at The Home Depot. Only about 14 percent of Americans are health club members. Leibert said that when he worked at The Home Depot, 92 percent of homeowners shopped at either The Home Depot, Lowe's or Menard's.

In fact, at one point in the session, after another question about the challenges in the industry, Anytime Fitness CEO Jeff Klinger leaned over to Leibert and asked, "Why did you leave Home Depot?"

To which Leibert replied, "Home equity loans were drying up." I don't think he was kidding, either.

One of the more interesting encounters during the session came when Mike Feinman, the chief operating officer of Gold's Gym International, asked the panel a question, saying that the industry doesn't have a supply issue, it has a demand issue. Feinman is one of the many executives who left 24 Hour since Leibert took over.

Before the question, Feinman sounded pleased to find out from Leibert that 24 Hour is planning to launch a group exercise program for non-members on Jan. 1. (Leibert later said 24 Hour has whittled down the number of different types of pricing from 62 to 12 and hopes to get down to three in the near future.) Leibert didn't seem to mind at all that he spilled the beans on 24 Hour's new program to a rival competitor.

"It's all about execution," Leibert told Feinman with a smile.

Sounds like another football term to me.

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